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Schools Drop ‘Terrific Kid’ Program

March 29, 1998

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ It was the end of fourth grade, and Patrick Korth marched to the front of the auditorium at Black Mountain Primary to be pronounced a ``Terrific Kid.″

The filigreed scroll from the local Kiwanis Club spelled out in bold letters the characteristics of a terrific kid: Thoughtful, Enthusiastic, Respectful, Responsible, Influential, Friendly, Impeccable, Caring. It came with a special pencil and a bumper sticker so 10-year-old Patrick’s parents could proclaim to the world, ``I’m a Proud Parent of a Terrific Kid.″

But Patrick felt anything but terrific.

The award is supposed to encourage students who might not qualify for other honors. Patrick’s younger sister always got it at the beginning of the year. But Patrick was always among the last to receive it.

When he got home the day of the assembly, Patrick ran into the woods behind his house and tearfully tore up the certificate and bumper sticker.

``He said it was stupid; his teacher didn’t like him and that’s why he got it at the end of the year,″ his mother, Kathy, recalled.

Kiwanis’ Terrific Kids program was born in 1983 in Black Mountain, a religious retreat town in the Appalachian foothills, and within a decade had spread to nearly 3,000 schools worldwide.

But the Black Mountain and other area schools have suspended Terrific Kids, following parents’ complaints that the criteria are vague and arbitrary, and that by singling out some children as ``terrific,″ it is telling the others they are nothing special.

``You end up with kids who don’t get awards, and they think they’re not terrific or they think they’re not worthy,″ says Mary Jean Herzog, an associate professor of education and curriculum development at Western Carolina University.

She has experienced frustration with Terrific Kids firsthand through her own three children.

``The word `terrific’ is what ruins it, because ... it’s a word tied up with a child’s self-esteem,″ says Emily Blanchard-Reid, a former president of the Black Mountain Parent-Teacher Organization.

She wrote to Kiwanis in 1991 that her daughter felt ``like someone hit her hard″ when she didn’t win the award.

``It’s not a picture of, you know, are they fast runners, are they good spellers. It’s a word that denotes a whole picture of the child.″

Mrs. Blanchard-Reid and others have been pushing Kiwanis for three years to either evaluate the program professionally or to drop it altogether. They have a Web site and are contacting Terrific Kids clubs in other states to share their concerns.

But Kiwanis, armed with heartwarming success stories from around the world and glowing letters from the U.S. Department of Education, is standing by the program. In fact, the only complaints have come from Black Mountain, says Chris Rice, director of program development at the Indianapolis headquarters of the worldwide club for business people and professionals.

He assumes that ``If something were going wrong, people would come and tell us about it.″

Kiwanis is simply ducking its responsibility, says Monroe Gilmour, spokesman for an organization of parents concerned about the program.

``The families ... are suffering in silence,″ says Gilmour, a community activist and school volunteer. ``No one wants to go against what appears to be Mom and apple pie.″

Hurting even one child was the furthest from Kiwanian Carlton Smith’s mind when he returned to Black Mountain from a trip to Florida in 1983.

The retired accountant was excited about a reward program he had seen in a school there. He decided to try it back home as a way to promote good attendanceand even got MacDonald’s to offer food coupons as part of the award. Kiwanis International picked up on the program, targeting elementary school children. Testimonials have come from around the world.

``I’ve been very pleased with it,″ says Smith, 85. ``It still gives me a thrill to see a bumper sticker that says `I’m a terrific kid.′ And I’ve seen hundreds of them.″

Connie Groves feels differently.

``I still cringe when I see those bumper stickers,″ the Black Mountain woman says. ``I just want to say, `Too bad that you’re not really thinking this out.‴

Mrs. Groves’ son, Jered Rowland, overheard his mother and other grownups complaining about the program, and wrote Kiwanis a letter in January 1996.

Jered, then 11, said he got the Terrific Kid award only once in three years. ``All the other times I had to sing songs about Terrific Kids and watch them get the award.

``The song goes, `Silver only shines when it is polished.′ I guess I am not polished in their eyes. I became immune to the feeling that I was not ever going to get the award.″

``It broke my heart,″ Mrs. Groves says.

Kiwanis put a notice in its newsletter last year alerting other clubs to the problems encountered in Black Mountain. Rice has shopped around unsuccessfully for a university education department to review Terrific Kids, and even asked a national principals’ organization to give its opinion, but it declined, saying it didn’t want to be drawn into the controversy.

Problems with the program arise locally and should be fixed at that level, Rice says. And some have done just that.

Steve Norwood heard teachers complain about Terrific Kids in the central office at Hillandale Elementary in East Flat Rock. When he became principal at Hillandale in 1993, he decided to revamp the program.

Norwood told his teachers to come up with two positive attributes about each child, ``something that they’ve got some control over.″

Kiwanians say automatically rewarding everybody takes away the motivation. Norwood says some kids are too fragile to take the alternative.

``I had one little boy in here a few weeks ago,″ Norwood recalls, ``and I said, `Brian, I want you to know I love you.′ And he said, `Mr. Norwood, love is just a word’.″

When a child loses ``the flame of life and the desire to live,″ the teacher loses the chance to work with that child, Norwood says.

``You don’t want to blow that flame out.″


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Allen Breed is the Associated Press southeast regional reporter, based in Raleigh, N.C.

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